How to Prevent Sibling Rivalry When One Child Is in the Spotlight

Recently, we celebrated my son's third birthday. We had a small but festive party at our house, complete with lots of balloons, food, and games (and an adults-only beverage station). Our family room was filled with presents that friends and family had brought our little guy, and he was thrilled both with the abundance of gifts and to be the center of attention.

Not so thrilled was his older sister, who wasn't so sure about relinquishing her usual title as our house's HBIC (that's "Head Babe in Charge," of course). "Will everyone bring me presents, too?" she asked me before the party started. No, I explained to her. It was her brother's big day, and a few months later she'd have her own special celebration for her sixth birthday. Today she was expected to be a good big sister and help her brother have the best time possible.

It took a minute for her to wrap her head around a world, however temporary, where all adult eyes weren't on her, but eventually she got it. Despite a couple of meltdowns, probably inspired by equal parts sugar and jealousy, she managed to enjoy her brother's party, even allowing him to play with all of his new toys for a few minutes before stealing them away for a turn. Hey, no one said she's perfect.

As much as parents want to treat our children equally, it's just not always possible, nor advisable to do so. Of course, there are moments when one kid has to get more attention, whether it's a birthday celebration, a special performance or sports event, or even because of an illness. And when our eyes are focused on one of our children, the others definitely notice, and jealousy and sibling rivalry can ensue. However, there are steps you can take to minimize any negative feelings or behaviors from the child who's taking the back seat.

Here are six ways to keep the peace among siblings and for your entire family.

  1. Explain the situation in advance. Preparation is key when you know one of your children will be getting the bulk of your attention, especially if your other child isn't old enough to inherently know that a birthday party or preschool graduation means it's their sibling's big day. Explain that though you will be celebrating their sibling, you love all your children very much and look forward to the time when the others will also have a special day of their own.
  2. Remind your child that they will eventually have a turn to be in the spotlight as well. This is a great way to teach empathy. Although your child may not understand why they have to take a back seat at their sibling's birthday party, they can think about how excited and special they feel on their own birthdays and that as a supportive sibling, it's important to give their sibling that same happy experience.
  3. Make sure all of your children are entertained and included. If you know you have a child who has a tough time not being the center of attention, throw them (and yourself) a bone and perhaps let them invite a special friend along or let them bring a favorite game or toy to entertain themselves. In addition, giving them special tasks, like delivering each present to their sibling or asking who wants a slice of cake lets them feel included in the festivities.
  4. Remind them how important their support is to their sibling. Sometimes it just takes a reminder that their brother or sister loves them and needs their encouragement and comfort during big moments, whether they're good or bad. Most kids will rise to the occasion.
  5. Teach them that tough lesson: life isn't always fair. Every adult knows it, and every child will have to eventually learn that life just isn't inherently fair all the time. Although it's a hard lesson that we don't always want to saddle our kids with, it's a reality that they'll eventually have to accept.
  6. Don't reward bad behavior. Temper tantrums in these situations are usually just a way to get your attention, so don't fall for them. If you have to deal with a meltdown, do so quickly and, if you can, use a time out, limiting your child's time with you and access to their sibling, who deserves your undivided attention.